By Darrell J. Pehr
The Promise of Bioscience
NMSU researchers unlock secrets with science
As strange as it may sound, a souped-up aquarium pump may be more useful than a gas pump when refueling the SUVs of the future. Insect-borne diseases, now sometimes deadly, may fade into the pages of medical texts along with smallpox, polio and other once-devastating killers and cripplers that met their match with scientific advances. And the threat of terrorism through a pathogen-poisoned water supply may be stopped in its tracks by high-tech nanosensors so small, they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Those advances and many more are the focus of researchers at New Mexico State University.
One common thread in all these promising possibilities? Biosciences.
With a connection to research interests in colleges across NMSU, biosciences – which examines how living systems work and interact with their environment – involves everything from agricultural researchers to biochemists, physicists, engineers and even social scientists.
As part of its university-wide approach to research, NMSU formed five research clusters in 2005, including biosciences. NMSU’s Biosciences Cluster incorporates researchers working in such varied areas as infectious disease in humans, animals and plants; cancer; drug development; public health; environmental biology and ecosystems; genetics; crop and livestock breeding; bioinformatics; neuroscience; and comparative genomics, metabolomics and proteomics.
Leading NMSU’s Biosciences Cluster is Michele Nishiguchi, a marine biologist and associate professor in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences who joined the university in 1999. Her primary focus during the past year has been to work to ensure the success and renewal of NMSU’s large research and training grants.
“It is really fantastic that NMSU has so many talented scientists here who have worked extremely hard to get these types of grants funded and are ensuring the success of those programs and the students who are in those programs,” Nishiguchi said. “The next task is to make sure that we maintain those grants through our renewals as well as receive internal support from the university. I hope I can garner that support, as well as seek other avenues of funding that would complement the strengths of the scientists at this university.”
As the Biosciences Cluster developed, an effort was made to identify particular strengths of the research faculty and staff at NMSU, which led to the formation of the university-wide Institute for Applied Biosciences (IAB). Appointed as its interim director in 2008 was Jeff Arterburn, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry whose research focus areas are synthetic medicinal chemistry and chemical biology. Arterburn joined NMSU in 1992.
“This is a process that started several years ago,” Arterburn said, “trying to identify what’s an important, scientific thematic area that uses existing strengths from NMSU faculty and staff that are involved in research and serves as a unique area to take that research forward with particular promise for funding.” Arterburn said discussions of potential thematic areas also focused on topics that could help NMSU accomplish major research objectives and increase its prominence as a research institution.
Two areas were identified that show substantial promise for growth at NMSU: synthetic biology and emerging pathogens.
“The IAB provides a new mechanism for pursuing important research challenges at NMSU, with the establishment of research teams focused on synthetic biology and emerging pathogens,” Arterburn said. “Nascent IAB projects involve studying and combating emerging viral diseases along the Rio Grande corridor, and developing new strategies for the production of biofuels. The goal of the IAB is to field innovative multidisciplinary collaborative research teams with unique expertise to address significant scientific problems and opportunities for the state and region, that can successfully compete for large research grants from federal, state and private agencies, and generate new opportunities for economic development.”
One of the first challenges facing IAB scientists is the threat from emerging pathogens, the microorganisms and viruses that can cause disease.
“The study of the effect of the hosts for these pathogens, like insect hosts for viral infections, on up to mammalian hosts such as livestock, and how that interaction with these emerging pathogens effects how dangerous the disease is, that’s an area of research that several faculty here on the NMSU campus are interested in, so it’s really a prime area for us to move forward in,” Arterburn said.
NMSU has recently taken an important step in the hiring of the first person specifically to work on IAB projects. Assistant Professor Immo Alex Hansen is a native of Germany who earned his Ph.D. at the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Würzburg. Hansen’s focus is on emerging pathogens, specifically the molecular biology of disease-transmitting mosquito vectors.
“In Würzburg, I worked on neuropeptide hormones and storage proteins in insects,” Hansen said. “After a brief postdoc doing cancer research in the endocrinology unit of the medical clinic of the university, my family and I moved to California. In the Golden State I worked as an assistant researcher at the Entomology Department of the University of California, Riverside, and that is when I got interested in the molecular biology of mosquitoes and their ability to transmit infectious diseases.”
At NMSU, Hansen is continuing his research into insects that are capable of transmitting a disease, called “vectors.”
“Only very few insect species specialized in blood sucking act as human disease vectors,” Hansen said. “I am now working on the molecular biology of disease-transmitting mosquito vectors. Malaria is a parasite-mediated disease transmitted by mosquitoes that claims the lives of between one to three million humans every year and the numbers are rising. Another viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes, Dengue Fever, claims about 500,000 lives a year.”
An important consideration of Hansen’s work is that global climate change extends the habitat of numerous tropical mosquito species, some of which are vectors for a variety of human diseases, into the U.S. and Europe. Some of these disease vectors can already be found in the Southwest and in Southern European countries like Italy.
“The mosquito species Aedes aegypti that we study in my laboratory is also the vector of Yellow Fever, another terrible disease,” Hansen said. “Presently, Aedes aegypti lives in tropical regions around the globe but has also been found as much north as Las Cruces. This vector can also transmit other parasites such as Plasmodium gallinaceum, which causes malaria in birds, and is the malaria-model system I presently work with.”
Several NMSU faculty members are associated with IAB in an affiliate role. They include Assistant Professor Kathryn Hanley, Department of Biology, with expertise in the emergence and control of vector-borne viruses; and Assistant Professor Jiannong Xu, Department of Biology, with expertise in the study of a mosquito’s own resistance to malaria; along with Arterburn, specializing in new drugs for emerging viruses.
Synthetic biology essentially is the process of developing the capacity to engineer biological systems for specific purposes and applications, Arterburn said. This branch of the IAB overlaps with the College of Enginering’s Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE) at NMSU, directed by Abbas Ghassemi.
An initial area of focus for NMSU in the area of synthetic biology is the development of algal biofuels, and leading NMSU’s efforts in that arena is Pete Lammers, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Goals of this first area of focus are to develop major federal, state and private investment in biomass research; take a multidisciplinary approach that includes genomics, phylogeny, physiology, toxicology, ecology, engineering (chemical, bio-, agricultural, materials) and techno-economic systems modeling and integration; and work in partnership with IEE.
The IAB also plans to offer affiliate member status for NMSU faculty and staff, to provide opportunities to dedicate extra effort to research in these critical projects. Meanwhile, numerous additional efforts in biosciences, from nanotube sensors on the lookout for waterborne pathogens to a student’s research project that tracks avian flu along the Rio Grande are under way across the campus.
“Collaborative science is the new paradigm for academic research and education, and thanks to our outstanding faculty, students and staff, NMSU is well-positioned to take the lead with initiatives that are important for New Mexicans and the nation,” Arterburn said.
Editor’s note: Hamid M. Rad, special projects coordinator for the Office of Strategic Initiatives, was a contributor to this article.